Two sides to new Johannesburg Transformation: Some South Africans say changes in Johannesburg constitute a "vibrant marketplace," but others complain about dirty sidewalks crowded with hawkers.

Sun Journal

September 23, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- It is a scenario familiar in American cities: crime-ridden streets, a deteriorating housing stock, a decline in basic municipal services, causing flight from the city by those who can afford to leave.

It is also the scenario in Johannesburg, but in this case may be a symptom of good municipal health.

In the era of apartheid, the commercial center of South Africa's largest city was a white, middle-class enclave that blacks could enter only with a pass. Whites now are moving to Johannesburg's suburbs, just as blacks are moving into the city center -- part of the transformation of Johannesburg from an artificial imitation of a European city to a genuinely African one.

North of the city are business centers such as Rosebank and Sandton and the homes of well-to-do whites. In Rosebank and Sandton, there are new hotels. There are new office buildings, many of their tenants the white-dominated businesses that are emptying office buildings downtown.

In downtown Johannesburg, the showcase Carlton Hotel has closed 400 of its 600 rooms. The city's art museum -- the Johannesburg Art Gallery -- has seen its attendance plummet. Virtually every skyscraper has vacant offices. But streets are filled with minibus taxis, the staple of black transportation. Sidewalks are crowded with hawkers selling everything from pocketbooks to bananas to haircuts.

The changes began about a decade ago when the laws of apartheid began to crumble.

"I think people ought to remember what Johannesburg used to be like," says Gerald Leissner, head of Anglo-American property division, which controls about 8 percent of Johannesburg's office space, including the Carlton Hotel. "You had businessmen coming in to work every day and a few ladies coming downtown to shop.

"Once everything closed at 5 o'clock, it was completely empty. Now, it's a vibrant marketplace."

For some whites, it is too vibrant. For a businessman trying to negotiate sidewalks crowded with hawkers, step over piles of uncollected garbage, and fearful of a mugging, the shiny streets of Sandton have an almost irresistible lure. But Leissner argues that the business district's change from a white-collar office center to a retail marketplace for black townships was inevitable -- and that the same transformation will take place in the white suburbs to the north.

"There is absolutely no reason why what has happened to downtown will not happen to Rosebank and Sandton," he says, arguing that there is no way to hide from the racial and socioeconomic realities of South Africa.

The two sides of the new Johannesburg are on display in the Oppenheimer Gardens downtown. This was once a pleasant place to spend a lunch hour. A herd of bronze impala jumped over a lively fountain surrounded by well-kept flower beds and pristine paths.

Now the impala jump over a dry fountain that collects garbage. On one side of the park, glue sniffers go about their pastime. About a third of the park is a guarded storage area for hawkers' grocery carts filled with their goods.

David Madziuhandila, the 45-year-old who runs the storage business, agrees that this is not a pretty sight.

"The park does look terrible," he says, standing next to the cardboard structure he sleeps in while guarding the hawkers' goods overnight. "But where else are these hawkers supposed to leave their goods?"

While Madziuhandila's business might seem a blight on down- town, it is also a demonstration of the type of entrepreneurship that built Johannesburg above the gold mines a century ago.

Madziuhandila entered business in 1988 when a few hawkers asked him to look after their carts at night in a building he was painting. Now, at 25 cents a cart a day, he makes about $350 a week, paying out half that in salaries to five young men who help guard the depot.

A few hundred yards away, Nomsa Simelane, 35, is working in the middle of a pedestrian mall, beginning a four-hour process of braiding extra hair into a customer's head. "I used to just sell those," she says, indicating her stand with knitted caps, sweaters and a stack of diapers. "But business was not so good, so I added this."

jTC In a good week, she makes about $100. On this day, she employs two other women to help with the braiding. All around her the mall is filled with other vendors fighting personal battles against South Africa's 40 percent unemployment rate.

The lack of facilities for such people -- from toilets to storage to taxi ranks to sidewalks wide enough to accommodate them -- demonstrates that Johannesburg was not built to be the city it has become: "The city was built for 15 percent of the population," says Leissner, referring to the country's whites. "At the end of the day, 85 percent of this country is not white."

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